The Old Town:
Reykjavik's best sight is the city itself. A couple of hours on foot in the old part of the city allows you to experience its unique spirit, the busy harbor, colorful houses, whimsical murals and sculptures, and interesting architecture, old and new. Start at the main tourist office at 2 Adalstraeti, where you can pick up free printed walking guides. The points of interest are easy to find, roughly between the old harbor and the town pond (Tjornin on the map).
Along Tryggvagata, the street beside the harbor, at Posthusstraeti, an enormous mosaic depicts the city's maritime life. Keep strolling to see plaques with photos of old sailing ships, one of the old steam locomotives used to build a harbor railroad and the ultra-modern concert hall rising above the harbor. Head south toward the pond on almost any street, and you'll be in the oldest part of town, passing brightly colored buildings with tin roofs. You never know where you'll encounter an intriguing small gallery, a humorous sculpture or mural. Around the pond are the modernistic City Hall on stilts and the 1881 classic stone Parliament.
If your schedule allows, you can take advantage of the guided, 90-minute walking tours sponsored by Goecco Outdoor Adventures, with guaranteed departures May 15 to September 15 at 1 p.m. daily, departing from the Elding Whale Watching stand, located on the old harbor. Another free walking tour option departs wtice a day from Laekjartorg Square at noon and 2 p.m. Led by university students, the one-hour tour visits the Althingi Parliament, Hallgrimskirkja Church, Harpa Symphony Hall and more. In both cases, all it will cost you is a tip for the guide.
Not everyone admires the odd stair-step architecture, but there's no missing this unusual church, named after Icelandic poet Hallgrimur Petursson. Iceland's largest church, seating more than 1,000, sits at the top of a hill at the end of the shopping street Skolavordustigur. Take the elevator to the tower, which literally towers over the town, for great city views. The concrete form was designed by former state architect Gudjon Samuelsson and was supposedly inspired by volcanic basalt rock formations. On the grounds is a statue of Norwegian-born Leif Ericson, the Viking said to have discovered America 500 years before Columbus. It was a gift from the United States in 1930 on the 1,000th anniversary of the world's oldest Parliament, Iceland's Althing. On some days during the summer months, you may be able to catch a concert at Hallgrimskirkja (usually at noon).
Reykjavik Art Museum:
If art is your pleasure, head to the Reykjavik Art Museum (www.artmuseum.is
), but there's a catch: The museum is divided into three different locations. The most convenient is Hafnarhus
(Tryggvagata 17), the contemporary art museum, housed in a former warehouse across the street from the old harbor. A special gallery there is devoted to the large, comic book-style paintings donated by the Iceland-born artist Erro. (Hafnarhus is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, with extended hours until 8 p.m. on Thursdays.) The other two sites are short cab rides from the cruise dock or town center. Kjarvalsstadir
(in Miklatun Park) is the oldest and largest, housing paintings and sculpture by well-established artists. (Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.) The Asmundur Sveinsson Sculpture Museum and Park
(Sigtun) resides in a striking, contemporary, domed building and is named for the sculptor who designed the edifice and whose work is featured inside. (Hours from May 1 to September 30 are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. There's a fee, but you can walk around the sculpture garden for free.)
The Harpa Concert Hall
is located along the water. The striking building, made of colored glass, opened in 2011 and is home to the Iceland Symphony Orchestra and Icelandic Opera; it also hosts a variety of concerts, international conferences, trade shows and more. Two restaurants are on site, as are two shops, one of which features a selection of Icelandic music. (guided tours twice daily for a fee)
If you'd like to immerse yourself in Iceland's history and culture, you've got a few museums from which to choose. If you want to learn more about the country, the National Museum of Iceland
, near the town pond, will fill you in nicely. The Reykjavik City Museum
, dedicated to the city's past, operates the underground Reykjavik 871+/-2 Settlement Museum
(Adalstraeti 160), inspired by the remains of a Viking-age longhouse, circa 930 AD, that was uncovered in 2001. The museum uses multimedia displays, models and artifacts to bring the story of the city's earliest settlers to life. (open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily)
Laugavegur and intersecting Skolavordustigur, the main shopping streets, are well worth strolling even if you don't plan on buying anything. The shops display not only the traditional Nordic sweaters but also the modern design that is an increasing influence in Reykjavik. As you browse, don't forget to look toward the water at cross streets for striking views and more murals in unexpected places.
Iceland's Golden Circle tour
offers a chance to explore the island's raw and rugged interior. The trio of sites includes the Strokkur Geyser, where jets spout anywhere from 60 to 100 feet; the mystically beautiful Gullfoss (or Golden) Falls, Europe's largest waterfall, tumbling into a glacial river with a 105-foot double cascade; and Thingvellir, a scenic national park that marks where Europe's first Parliament, the Althing, was formed in 930 AD. Your best bet is to book a tour, whether through your cruise line or via an independent company.
The Blue Lagoon:
Located about 40 minutes from downtown, the Blue Lagoon is one of Iceland's most popular destinations. Steaming, mineral-rich hot water from far beneath the earth forms this spectacular manmade lagoon, amid a rugged lava landscape. A health spa also offers mudpacks and massages. The lagoon's geothermal water is believed to be beneficial for everything from skin problems to arthritis. Keep in mind that, while the Blue Lagoon is well worth a visit, you probably won't have time to enjoy the hot waters and explore the city of Reykjavik. Thermal Pools:
Reykjavik is famous for its steamy geothermal swimming pools, fed by underground springs. The biggest and best-known is the Laugardalslaug (Sundlaugavegur 30a, 411-5100), with both indoor and outdoor pools, plus "hot pots" and a thermal steam bath for those who really like it hot. Take a cab or the #14 bus. The pool is part of Laugardalur (553 8870), the city's largest park, where you can easily spend a rewarding day. The park includes botanic gardens -- showing off local plant life and great displays of seasonal flowers -- as well as the city zoo. Editor's Note: In order to keep the pools clean, all visitors to any of Reykjavik's thermal pools must wash thoroughly with soap (and without a swimsuit) before getting in.
The Pearl and Saga Museum:
Take a cab or the #18 bus to see two only-in-Iceland sites -- The Pearl
and the Saga Museum
. Named for its dome shape, The Pearl is a multi-use building that rests on top of six storage tanks that hold the hot thermal waters that heat the city. Inside the building is the curious Saga Museum, a cafe, shops and an elegant revolving restaurant. The free viewing deck on the fourth floor has a great panoramic view -- for a closer look, try one of the telescopes stationed around the platform. More than 176,000 trees have been planted on the steep hillside, resulting in a woodland setting with cycling and walking paths that are rare for the city.
The Saga Museum re-creates Viking history with eerily lifelike replicas of historical Icelandic figures, based on descriptions found in the old Icelandic sagas. For an authentic ambience, a soundtrack of bloody Viking axe fights plays in the background. A short movie at the end of the tour tells you how the figures were made. Fun fact: Local residents served as models for some of the figures.
Arbaer Open-Air Folk Museum:
Operated by Reykjavik City Museum, Arbaer Open-Air Folk Museum is a period farm turned into an open-air museum with more than 20 buildings forming a town square, a village and a farm. Most of the buildings have been relocated from central Reykjavik. Craftspeople demonstrate traditional farm-life crafts and chores. Although it's located in a suburb of Reykjavik, the museum is easily accessible. Take bus #19 from Hlemmer, the main bus station on Laugavegur, and ask to get off at Strengur, a quick walk from the museum.
Boat tours take visitors past the Puffin Islands, where thousands of these adorable birds are found in mating season. Puffin Express
has tours to the islands of Akurey and Lundey, from May 1 to August 20, using small boats that bring you close to shore.
From gourmet food to simple meals, Reykjavik has something for every taste and budget. Seafood and lamb are the stars of Icelandic menus. Fish is right-off-the-boat fresh. Cod is the most popular choice, though haddock, Arctic char, halibut, salmon and monkfish are also common. The locally raised lamb has been allowed to range freely and feed on grasses and bushes that have never known chemicals, giving the meat a distinctive flavor, which slightly resembles that of wild game.
Cheap and Chic:
Two of the city's hottest nighttime venues are perfect stops for an affordable lunch. Cafe Mokka
(Skolavordustigu) is Reykjavik's classic coffee bar. Vegamot
, conveniently set on a little street between Laugavegur and Skolavordustigur (the two main shopping streets), is a buzzing bar and club at night. But, it's also a great stop by day, when you'll find salads, sandwiches and gourmet pizzas, as well as full meals. On sunny days, the outside garden is packed.
Convenient: Geysir Bistro
, next to the main tourist office -- and right across from the cruise shuttle drop-off spot -- is a pleasant cafe with well-priced prix fixe lunches that include soup and coffee.
Icelanders are crazy about hot dogs, and the place to find out why is a simple stand near the harbor called Baejarins Beztu Pylsur
(literally means "best hot dog in town," and we have to say: it's mighty fine), a standby since 1939. Look for it on Tryggvagata, just east of Posthusstraeti. (Head toward the Radisson Blu 1919 hotel in the old town, and look for a line of people.) To sample a hot dog the way the natives like it, order it with everything -- sweet mustard, fried onion and a remoulade sauce. It will set you back about 2 euros.